The Improvisational Brain

Feature / by Amanda Rose Martinez /

Watching a musician in the throes of an improvisational solo can be like witnessing an act of divine intervention. But embedded memories and conspiring brain regions, scientists now believe, are the true source of ad-hoc creativity.

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Credit: Flickr user maistora

One summer at the annual Bremen Music Festival in Germany, Robert Levin, a classical pianist, was in the midst of improvising a passionate and wild cadenza during Beethoven’s “C Major Piano Concerto.” A cadenza is a passage in a concerto during which the orchestra ceases and a soloist strikes out on his own, improvising within the style of the piece. Up until the early nineteenth century, many classical composers wrote space for these cadenzas within their works. Levin is one of a handful of musicians who has taken it upon himself to revive the practice of classical improvisation. He is world renowned for his ability to effortlessly extemporize in the styles of several composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. In this particular concert, however, Levin had gotten himself into a bit of a pickle.

“I was going whole hog,” Levin said, thanks to the permission Beethoven gave his renderers to modulate or change keys during his cadenzas. “I had gone really far afield and was in F sharp major. That’s as far away from C major as you can possibly get because if you keep going, you start to get closer to the other side.”

“It’s like the world,” Levin said, drawing a parallel to the structure of musical scales. “You go more than 12,500 miles around the equator and you might as well keep going.”

At this point, Levin pounded some F sharp major chords, and for a split second, he paused. “I was shocked at how far off I was and how crazy this all was,” Levin said. “I thought to myself: ‘Oh my god! How am I going to get home?’ ”

Imagine the pressure: Levin is sitting at the piano. A full orchestra of musicians, with instruments poised at the ready, not to mention the conductor, Sir John Eliot Gardner, are waiting for Levin to finish out the cadenza, so that they can resume the piece. And then there is the festival audience of thousands, some of whom, according to Levin, had sensed his predicament and audibly gasped.

“I looked down at the keyboard and imagined myself saying: ‘Save me! Help me!’ ” said Levin. “And literally—I felt this—I thought the keys looked up at me and said: ‘You got yourself here. You get yourself out.’ ”

What happened next, Levin said, was truly miraculous. “I started to play again. And so to speak, I slid on the banana peel of a diminished seventh chord and through some enharmonic sleight of hand—it was not planned—I suddenly found myself within sight of my front door, and I got home.”

There is something fascinating about the act of musical improvisation—that moment when a musician departs from the score, embarking on a thematically relevant, yet wholly spontaneous composition. We normally think of it as the province of jazz musicians, conjuring the iconic image of a sax player wailing through riffs in a smoky, dim-lit club. John Coltrane and Bill Evans were masters. Miles Davis was never much for rehearsal. He used to gather his band in the studio, rattle off a few suggestions for the broad shape each track should take, and hit record.

But many of the early classical composers—Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Liszt—were also known for improvising entire portions of their concerts. Liszt had a penchant for soliciting musical themes from his audience. Before a show, anyone could jot down a few bars of melody on a piece of paper. Some were original. Others were bits of recognizable tunes from the time, a popular symphony or aria. Liszt would then pull one of these melodies out of a hat and use it as a launching point. He’d reharmonize it or play it backwards, always wresting from it a spirited improvisation that could last for several minutes.

Regardless of genre, the appeal of improvisation is its danger. It’s an act of audacity, says Levin, but ultimately an act of profound humanity, given that it’s a communication between the performer and the audience. The musician takes a huge risk, trusting, hoping that his brain and fingers will successfully allow him to “walk the tight rope over the precipice and arrive at the other side,” Levin says. “Or you might crash and burn. You never know.” But the spectators, as they live vicariously through the musician’s adventure, love him for it.

How do musicians do this? When he’s ready to begin a cadenza, Levin says, he doesn’t have a plan. As many other seasoned improvisers claim, he just starts playing. It’s intuitive. But, Levin admits, he didn’t always know how to improvise. He had to learn. So the question remains: how can a skill that in its truest form is innate be learned?

Aaron Berkowitz, a cognitive ethnomusicologist, who took on the task of demystifying improvisation as the focus of his dissertation work at Harvard, has a theory. He likens the process of learning to improvise to that of learning a second language. Initially, he says, it’s all about memorizing vocabulary words, useful phrases and verb conjugation tables. Your first day, you might learn to say: How are you? I’m fine. “These are like the baby steps beginning improvisers take. They learn the structure of the blues. They learn basic chords and get the form down,” said Berkowitz. But they’re still very limited in what they can do.

A dedicated musician will immerse himself in the recordings of his chosen genre or composer, just as a language student might absorb foreign films or tapes of people speaking. Over time, both musician and student accumulate more phrases and ways to combine them. “But you still can’t really invent anything. [The language learner] can’t talk about politics or the environment,” Berkowitz said. “You’re still thinking: ‘Uh oh, here’s comes a verb. I have to put it in the past tense. I have to put it at the end of the sentence before I can say this whole phrase.”

But eventually, through constant practice, you get to the point where, scientists believe, these processes get pushed down into the subconscious. They don’t need to be consciously worked out anymore. They become a subroutine. Suddenly you realize you’re saying things you haven’t heard or memorized. You’re able to free-associate. Your brain begins exerting control at a higher level, directing bigger chunks of information that can be expressed as whole ideas.

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